LOS ANGELES - When it comes to representation on television, are Hispanics the new blacks?
Cheech Marin hopes so.
"Black shows were a great entree, and then they became part of the landscape. . . . (Now) they don't have to be emblematic of a whole generation. They can just be what they want to be," said Marin, who will star as the patriarch of a Mexican family airing a celebrity talk show from their back yard in Fox's new sitcom The Ortegas.
"The influx of Latinos on TV is like a tide that goes in," he said. "And when it goes out again, it leaves a couple of things on the beaches. This is just a big tide that just came in, by dint of numbers."
On the surface, the numbers sound impressive. This fall, network TV will feature three Hispanic-centered shows: The Ortegas; character actor Luis Guzman's Luis on Fox; and comic George Lopez's self-titled ABC sitcom.
The networks also will feature 14 series with black stars or mostly black casts, including five new series. Yet Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country, the U.S. Census shows.
"We're still in the business of incremental gains," said Felix Sanchez, founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. "We have reached a point where we have been able to impress upon network executives the importance of a black/white diversity. Beyond that, they can't broaden out their concept . . . to include Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans."
How did this happen? Follow the money: Damon Wayans' ABC show, My Wife and Kids, and Fox's The Bernie Mac Show proved that a mainstream network could make money on a show featuring a black cast post-Cosby (one problem with the lack of diversity among network programmers is that minority performers wind up fighting the same issues every few years or so).
And ratings figures suggest that Hispanics don't watch series with Hispanic casts or lead actors the way black viewers flock to black-centered shows.
Studies continually show black viewers as the strongest supporters of shows featuring significant black characters or mostly black casts, including My Wife and Kids, The Bernie Mac Show and NBC's ER.
But Nielsen Media Research's list of the most popular shows in Hispanic households is packed with Spanish-language soap operas (telenovellas), with no English-language shows to be seen, regardless of the stars.
According to figures from Nielsen, Lopez's show was the 11th-ranked English-language network show among Hispanic households during May's "sweeps" ratings period. American Idol's Wednesday and Tuesday installments ranked first and second, respectively, and NBC's stunt show Fear Factor was third. The Bernie Mac Show tied for sixth place.
"I know that 65 percent of the people that watch my show are Anglo . . . and that really is more important to me than drawing a Latino audience," said Lopez, whose show is the first network sitcom since Chico and the Man starring a Hispanic actor to find mainstream success.
"I don't think (Hispanic viewers) believe enough in themselves to rally around something," added the comic, who will kick off ABC's revamped T.G.I.F. franchise on Friday nights this fall.
"It's like, when you see a telenovella, they don't look like the people who watch the show. The skinnier and blonder the person, the more popular. It's kind of a fractured self-image Latinos have, that you have to be attractive to be good. And I'm living proof you don't have to be attractive to be good."
A longtime character actor known for playing the heavy in films such as Traffic and Anger Management, Guzman said that he got his first acting job by "killing the (casting director) with my eyes." He's playing against that image in Luis, a sitcom in which he stars as the owner of a doughnut shop in Spanish Harlem.
"I just think some people are set in their ways. . . . My mother still watches the novellas," said Guzman, who was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Manhattan and lives in Vermont. "Until someone is offered an alternative like ours, they stay with what they know. But I know a whole neighborhood on the lower East Side saying, "Let's watch Luis and TiVo the novella.' "
Some network officials said that it's a supply-and-demand issue: Mainstream shows must fight for Hispanic viewers with two Spanish-language TV networks, Univision and Telemundo, that have served Hispanic communities for years.
"For example, Monday night on UPN is where African-Americans go to get their television. . . . They don't have all these other vehicles to go to," said David Poltrack, head of research for CBS. "But a significant part of the growing Hispanic population is still the Spanish-dominant part . . . and they're still watching Univision."
Networks learned that the hard way last season, Poltrack said, when they presented Hispanic-centered events such as the Latin Grammys on CBS and NBC's miniseries about a family of Mexican drug dealers, Kingpin. In both cases, ratings for Univision barely moved despite the competition, he said.
"If you're putting (Hispanic actors) in programs to reach the Hispanic audience, and that's your primary target, it's going to be problematic," he said. "It's not going to get the same returns in that group if you had a strong African-American lead (seeking black viewers). Hispanics are the fastest-growing audience in the United States . . . but we haven't found a way to effectively bring them into network TV programming the way we have with African-American (shows)."
WB entertainment president Jordan Levin said that his network's experiment in Hispanic-centered comedy, last season's Greetings From Tucson, was canceled when advertisers failed to support the show beyond its sagging numbers.
"It felt like we were the strongest advocates for the show, in some cases," said Levin, adding that his network will present three new shows with black leads or mostly black casts this fall. "There was such an outcry on the part of advertisers for a Latino program. And yet we got no additional (advertising) benefit for putting it on."
Some say that the problem is less about viewer response than viewer measurement, maintaining that Nielsen simply doesn't count Hispanic viewers accurately.
One complaint: If the ratings service hooks its equipment to only the home's primary TV - the one the oldest adults likely control - then only the telenovella ratings may be counted, despite different viewing by younger, more assimilated residents. (Nielsen denied that was a problem, saying that it places "people meter" viewership-counting devices on every television in homes it uses for national ratings tabulation).
And some Hispanics who are wary of contact with any American institution - especially illegal immigrants - may resist participating in the process, Lopez said.
"The Nielsen box is what scares Latinos. . . . We don't want anything in our house that could be looking back at us," said the comic, only half-joking. "We have nine TVs in every house. (And) I know that in a lot of homes, there's a television on that has the telenovellas, and there's a smaller one in the next room that has George Lopez on."
But Karen Gyimesi, vice president of marketing and communications for Nielsen, said that the problems in measuring Hispanic viewership may stem more from differences in culture: Those who come from countries where TV viewing is not measured may not understand the company's efforts.
"There are so many different kinds of Latinos in the U.S. . . . and they're a more difficult audience to get because of differences in dialects, ethnicity and country of origin," she said, noting that the company sometimes provides higher incentives, including minor cash payments, to urge Hispanic participation in some measurement efforts.
"This is a demographic we've been after for a long time," she said.
Still, while the industry struggles to solve the measurement problem - Poltrack said that programmers and advertisers also are brainstorming to develop better techniques - the potential seems enormous.
One of every six people age 18 to 34 is Hispanic, and 84 percent of the growth in the 18-to-49 group, the one prized by TV advertisers, was Hispanic, according to an analysis of Nielsen numbers by Univision reported last year in Media Life magazine.
Fox is chasing those numbers with Luis and The Ortegas. (The latter is based on a British show, The Kumars, in which a 30-something guy living at home presents a TV talk show from his back yard with his East Indian family's help.)
Said Marin: "For so long, advertisers felt they didn't have to advertise to Latinos because they were going to get them anyway, because they (watched English-language TV) trying to learn English. Now that the Latino consumer voice is a little more clarified and becomes more clarified every year . . . the tide is turning."
The situation seems reminiscent of the mid '70s, when black actors were often relegated to sidekick roles. Protests by advocacy groups and alliances with businesses eventually pulled networks into featuring more black characters, a process Marin said that Hispanics can emulate.
"(Hispanics) are not some colorful side alley. . . . We are one of the main threads of the cultural fabric," he said. "The idea isn't to get all the Latinos and put them in the mainstream, because we're already here. The idea is to get everybody to raise their hand simultaneously (so others see) we're here. We're everywhere . . . and it's okay."